Friday 13 March 2009

Go Big

While there are plenty of things to hate about America (grab a stone tablet and start chiseling) there is one that sticks deeply in my craw: the notion that everything here has to be so damn much bigger than anywhere else. Obviously we suffer short-man complex that must be compensated by owning the biggest car, house, bra, or refrigerator. Now, we give the biggest bailouts to the biggest bastards in big banking. Never has our excess been more visible and more despicable. Never has bigger been uglier. Typical American, I’m guilty myself. Several years ago I had the choice of signing with a mega publisher with a conglomerate parent company, or, a respected mid-sized press whose books I’d admired for years. Admittedly my decision to go big was only partially driven by greed and the promise of a big advance. I reasoned that the bigger house would have better, more professional resources with which to edit, design, publish, market, distribute and publicize, giving my books the best chance possible. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In the course of a five-year relationship with Big Publisher I stopped counting the number of cock-ups and failures in each vital phase of getting a book to market – in every department.

My second book with them was a disaster. The Ice Chorus got great reviews, but a battle over the jacket design effectively ended our relationship after I polled sales reps and booksellers who backed my argument that the cover was a kill factor. Who did I think I was, anyway? I thought I was an author with my books’ best interest at heart, but Big Publisher thought I was a slack-jawed yokel from the hills, arrogant enough to have opinions.

The marketing budget for The Ice Chorus was cut, then cut again, and finally I was told there would be no money for a book tour despite the reviews. Next, the print run was reduced.

As it happened, my niece Mickey was planning a tour of cities to visit gallery owners and museum curators with her portfolio of large-format photographs. We planned a ten-city tour, coordinated our schedules and loaded up the station wagon. We spent two weeks on the road promoting my books and her art. The road-trip aspect was interesting, and had its moments – my niece is a great traveler and organizer and our days were neatly planned out down to the mile and minute. Unfortunately, the pubescent publicist at Big Publisher hadn’t procured any press or exposure for my events (she had, in fact, confused St. Paul, Minnesota with St. Louis Missouri.) Midway through the tour, after a fifth or sixth dreadfully under-attended reading, I looked at Mickey squarely and said, “Do not pity me.”

I realized then that no amount of my own flogging was going to bring my dying horse of a novel to life – I couldn’t do it all on my own. Ten minutes later I broke down, “Pity me!” I insisted.

Toward the end of our trip, morale and appetites had degenerated to the point we stopped to eat at a McDonalds. In the huge window of McDonalds was an equally huge poster, an ad for something called a Big Burger. I was rapt. This was it! In letters the size of our heads was the motto for our entire trip! GO BIG or go home

I went home. Mickey actually did GO BIG, and is now in New York, where her big photographs of the spines of books and volumes of collections (see are being bought up by collectors and blown up even bigger for public art projects.

You can see us in the photo, a bit shell-shocked, reflected against a motto you would only find in America. I keep meaning to get this framed as a reminder to sally forth employing moderation in all things save burgers.

All has turned a better corner since that book tour – America has tanked, small is the new big, and modest is the new bling. For now. At least until we recover and become horrible again.

In the meantime I’m thrilled to report that The Ice Chorus now has a second life with Alma Books, a publisher of literature and only literature, a small-ish house peopled by humans, where the editor knows my name, and where the book designer actually welcomed my suggestions. Alma has a catalog of books exactly of the sort that cram my own shelves, written by interesting authors I wouldn’t mind getting drunk with.

For the first time in my publishing experience, I’m looking forward to actually working with a publisher. It’s all good.

Go, little booke. Go, Alma

Sarah Stonich

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